Review: Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

So back in October, I was taking a writing course at the University of Ottawa.  As part of that course, we had the opportunity to meet with the university’s writer-in-residence, Madeleine Thien.  If you don’t recognize that name, you clearly don’t pay too close attention to the Canadian fiction scene, because Thien won both the Governor General’s Award and the Giller Prize for her book Do Not Say We Have Nothing. Given the chance to meet her, hear her read and ask her questions, I immediately went to pick up the book (well, but the ebook on my kobo) after class.

It took me until last week to read, which, at 500 pages I give myself a break on.  Do Not Say We Have Nothing (DNSWHN for short) “takes us inside an extended family in China, showing us the lives of two successive generations–those who lived through Mao’s Cultural Revolution in the mid-twentieth century; and the children of the survivors, who became the students protesting in Tiananmen Square in 1989, in one of the most important political moments of the past century” [Goodreads description].

Thien is a breathtaking writer, I will say that first.  Her way with prose is almost poetic, and there are music and poetry as a major theme throughout the book. I will admit that it took me some time to get into the characters that go through the Cultural Revolution portion of the story.  As a reader, it took me around the first 100 pages or so to really start caring about the characters.  This seems to be a common refrain in the reviews I’ve read on Goodreads, so it’s nice to know I’m not alone in that.

But eventually I came to love Ai-ming, Sparrow, Zhuli, Marie, Kai and the others. I read every page eagerly, wanting to know what became of everyone.  Thien masterfully crafts the characters and twines the stories together in such a subtle way that I didn’t even clue in to the identity of Marie’s father until the middle of the book.  That definitely made him more interesting.

This is not always, or even generally, a very happy book.  But it is an amazing feat of storytelling and one that I gave 5 out of 5 stars to, something that I rarely do. Highly recommend it.

Book Review: The Reason You Walk

I finished reading The Reason You Walk last night. It’s a wonderful, touching book about Wab Kinew and his relationship with his father. I received it as a Christmas gift from my friend Jasmine.

The book is very much a memoir, in that it follows the life of Wab’s father and then Wab as well, ending in the inevitable changes that happen when one of our parents pass away. But if you’re looking for a typically written book, you won’t find it here. The writing style is very different, something I noticed almost immediately. You could almost say it is written in the style it would be spoken, because the pace of the writing very much comes off like oral tradition. There aren’t as many subtle segues and there are large jumps in time, but it doesn’t come across as detrimental. You can almost hear Wab himself talking to you.

I learned a lot the Kinew men by reading this book. And why was I interested? Well I’ve been following Wab Kinew for several years on social media, where I knew him as a CBC personality and somewhat of a spokesperson on Aboriginal issues. These issues are important to me, because I am Aboriginal myself, and also Ojibwe like the family in the book.

So when the first chapter opened with a Sundance I was very, very confused. Ojibwe people don’t perform the Sundance, so what the heck was going on? Thankfully this connection goes on to be thoroughly explained and explored within the story itself and ends up being an important ceremony for the family.

The book is about many things, a father and son story, about maintaining your cultural heritage, about life and death. But mostly it is about love and passion and motivation, and those are all the reason you walk.

Book Review: Fiendish

I received my copy of Fiendish through a Goodreads ARC giveaway.

I have never read any other books by Brenna Yavanoff, but I definitely was intrigued by the summary about a girl who was trapped in a closet for 10 years then finally freed. And true to that description, Fiendish is the story of Clementine, a girl who was buried in the basement closet with her eyes sewn shut when she was seven years old. If you think that sounds rather horrific, you’re not alone. Horrific but intriguing, because a boy named Eric Fisher finds her and sets her free 10 years later.

So who trapped her there and why? How is she still alive? What impact does it have on her? All these questions definitely piqued my interest and not only got me reading Fiendish, they kept me interested until the end.

While overall I really enjoyed this book, it also left me with some questions. Why were her eyes shut? Are fiends alive, dead, what? Why are those particular 5 people special and how does Eric’s grandmother know? The last one is the most important I think, and could use some further explanation. It would be easy to add even just a line or two to clarify. Of course it’s possible I just missed it.

I really enjoyed Fiendish! The writing was good, and allowed for a quick read. If you want some creepy, suspenseful Young Adult fiction in your life (and who doesn’t?), I heartily recommend this book.

Book Review: That Night

I received my copy of That Night through an ARC giveaway at Goodreads.

When I first received the novel in the mail I was not hopeful.  The cover copy did not do it any favours, reading “They said she murdered her sister…..they LIED!” How very dramatic.  But as they say, don’t judge a book by its cover, so I gave it a go.

It took me a long time to get into the story.  I think I read the first 75 pages and then put the book down for over a month.  To be fair, once I picked it back up again I finished the rest of it in one sitting, so clearly it eventually held my attention.

The plot was certainly intriguing enough.  I mean, yes, the book begins near the end so we do know that certain characters end up in prison, although the book never made me doubt their innocence.  If I was supposed to wonder if the main characters did it, the book failed in that regard, but I’m not sure that was the case.  And while the whodunit aspect of the mystery was clearly obvious – the author was not subtle in this regard – Stevens definitely surprised me with a twist or two at the end of the book that I definitely hadn’t expected.

The characters were a mixed bag, although realistically so.  I had a hard time believing that 18 year old Toni would be such a prison bad-ass, or that she and Ryan would still be attractive to each other after more than 12 years away. But in my opinion these were easy to overlook, especially the romance aspect.  Clearly the author didn’t have much choice.  Following the more realistic path would have been stunningly boring. Readers want to cheers for the ‘good guys’ and that means they end up together in the end.

Nicole drove me crazy – exactly as she was meant to – throughout a vast portion of the book – and Toni’s mother did her share to piss me off in her own way as well, which is a compliment to the writer.

The writing was decent, and improved over the course of the book.  It started out a bit cringeworthy with far too many references to “the Joint” or “the Inside”.  A stricter hand with editing could have helped that.  I appreciated the alternating timelines, although the flashbacks were hard to read knowing what would befall the characters.

Overall That Night was a good book, a quick read, with an inviting plot.

Book Review: The Butterfly’s Daughter by Mary Alice Monroe

The Butterfly’s Daughter was one of the books chosen for my book club reads, which always brings me interesting books I might not have picked up myself. This book revolves around Luz, a young woman who has been raised by her grandmother since her mother’s death when Luz was five. Inspired by her grandmother’s love for the monarch butterfly and her desire to go home, Luz takes a road trip from Milwaukee to Mexico in an effort to fulfill her grandmother’s wishes. Along the way she meets a rather (predictably) motley cast of characters she soon calls friends, each adding something of their own to Luz’ trip. As you can expect, Luz learns a lot about herself and her family along the way.

I enjoyed this book, although I didn’t love it. Luz was a great character. She was well balanced. Loving without being clingy, independent, not always sure of what to do next, longing for family but not so willing to forgive and forget. She was not a stereotype. As the main character of the book, Luz’ was the most well served by the writing. None of the rest of the characters were total stereotypes either, but there were parts that seemed a little typical at the very least.

Only one description of a character made me roll my eyes. The author was describing two sisters who had in the past had a difficult relationship. The one she wanted us to take most note of was beautiful and thin etc. etc. etc. The other was described as having “gained a lot of weight after her divorce and her eyes were now gleaming slits in her face with dust-colored smudges beneath.” This struck me as incredibly amateur. There’s nothing wrong with describing the sisters as one beautiful, one not, but at least try to be subtle about it.

That was Monroe’s biggest fault by far, her lack of subtle writing. For example, an insane amount of use of the butterfly as metaphor. Yes, I know. The book is called the Butterfly’s Daughter, I should expect that. But then there’s the fact that the grandmother raises butterflies, Luz’ mother’s name means butterfly in Spanish, their ancestral home in Mexico is a butterfly sanctuary where they all arrive on the day of the dead, Luz meets a butterfly catcher/tagger/whathaveyou on her trip, her other companion had always planned to go to the sanctuaries with her father….it just got to be a bit much, in my opinion.

To be fair, there were several places in the text where I was rather confident I hads predicted the outcome, only to be proven very wrong at the end of the book. And not only was a wrong, but I got the sense that Monroe had placed those bits and pieces of hints in the text to throw off readers like me; readers who are sometimes too convinced of their own ability to see what’s coming. I give kudos to the author for that.

Finally, I would have really liked to know what happened to a Luz’ travel mates after everything. It’s sad we didn’t learn their fate. But maybe Monroe has a sequel planned. If she does, I’d probably read it.